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Childhood Memories

By Joseph Alderman

My uncle Joseph Alderman was born on February 23, 1893, and died November 1993 at 100 years of age. He graduated from Yale in 1915 and had many of his stories published in the Yale Literary magazine and in The Sheffield Monthly. In Volume I, Jews in New Haven, Uncle Joseph, in collaboration with his brother Abraham Aldreman, (who was born in Kurenitz) published, "The Passover Elections at the Sharon Israel."

Joseph Alderman was chairman of the English Department at Milford Academy and at the Rosenbaum Tutoring School before it became the Milford Academy. The Rosenbaum Tutoring School is written up in Volume V, Jews in New Haven.

In Childhood Memories, he mentions his grandfather Wolf Alderman and his step-grandmother, Mume Fageh, also his parents Max (Mordche) and Lena Alderman. His father Max (Mordche) was shamus of the Sheveth Achim Shul located at number ten at the top of Factory Street hill. The family's sixteen-family tenement was at 40 Spruce Street and their later home was at 692 Howard Avenue.

Another article about Joseph Alderman's Literary writings, may be found in Volume II, Jews in New Haven, titled, "A Literary Approach to life in the New Haven Ghetto 1910-1915, through the writings of Joseph Alderman" by Abraham Alderman.

My paternal grandfather was a tall, heavy set man with sharp aquiline features, and I knew him with an impressively long white beard. He was the only grandfather I knew, Mamma's parents having died long before I was born. Reb Velvel (Wolf) was a strict disciplinarian who, reputedly, treated his first wife harshly. She died at a comparatively early age, and Reb Velvel hastened to fulfill, as soon as decently possible, the semi-religious injunction to remarry.

Being a confirmed widower, like a confirmed bachelor, was frowned upon as contrary to the establishment of a full family life. His second wife we called Mume Fageh (Aunt Birdie). We never called her Bubbeh. She was a bright rosy cheeked, diminutive creature, whose briskness, perkiness and chirping really had much of a birdlike quality that reminded me of Jenny Wren in Dickens' Our Mutual Friend. I once spent a week at their home, having been banished there when my own home had been quarantined because of some contagious disease by a younger sister. Mumeh Fageh was more than a match for Reb Velvel in the several altercations between them, which they carried on unabashedly before me. Undaunted by his growls and threats, she invariably came out triumphant in these interchanges, from which he would retreat with a muttered Naresha Frau (foolish woman) uttured in a tone scornful enough to comprise the whole sex. Mumeh Fageh had been married before, but when, after ten years, no children came to bless the union, she was divorced, in accordance with some stern Judaic law.

I met my grandfather on frequent occasions. There was the early trek to his home, four blocks away, to get the obligatory Chanukah gift - a quarter. At the age of four, I trudged to his home to deliver the message announcing the birth of my brother Simon. Childbirth always took place at home; no woman at that time would think of going to a hospital for that interesting event, that institution, being held in great horror as a preliminary step to the grave. I used to catch glimpses of him in the synagogue on Saturdays and holidays and even at daily services when I was old enough to attend them. He would greet me with a nod, or a word or two, and, occasionally, a penny on week days - never of course, on the Sabbath or holidays when it was forbidden to carry money. One incident remains vividly in my mind. I had completed my stint of cleaning the benches, and washing the spittoons - an odious task, which my father relegated to me when he became Shamus (a combination beadle - sector-janitor functionary) at the synagogue. I was rummaging in the large area in the basement next to where the daily services were held. All kinds of discarded books and junk were piled there. It was also the place for the "Johns" - for men only, since women never attended these basement services. It was early evening, and grandfather had come in to make use of the facilities. Startles on seeing a creature crouched in the semi-darkness, he began to retreat, while uttering the prayer that wards off the evil spirit he took me to be. When I arose, and he realized that I was none other than his own grandchild, he scolded me for leading him to believe that I was a s'hed (demon) and, in relief, bestowed a nickel on me, instead of the usual penny. His generation, as well as that of my father, held an implicit belief in evil spirits. I remember Poppa going into some sort of exorcism involving the burning of some chicken feathers in a wad of wax, as he uttered prayers to expel whatever it was that was harrowing one of my sisters, whose hoarse, hollow cough really had something demonic about it.

Momma was a good-sized, gaunt woman in her younger years, to judge from a family picture I still retain, in which I appear as a four-year-old child. She was 26 years old at the time of her marriage, an age which, in the old country, and in those times, would seem to have doomed her to inevitable spinsterhood, or, at best, to marriage with some elderly widower, burdened with a passel of children. She escaped both fates by marrying Poppa, sight unseen. In fact, their first full glimpse of each other was under the marriage canopy - a common, though often disillusioning experience in arranged marriages, where expediency, rather than the heart, forwarded the union. This first glimpse did not occasion unalloyed joy to Momma. Poppa was shorter than she, spare in frame - and three years her junior. Despite this, their marriage seemed successful for the almost fifty years that it lasted until Poppa met his death at the age of 73, when he was run over by a reckless driver while returning from synagogue services. Their temperaments were distinctly different. Poppa was open-handed, careless in his disbursements, lively, and fond of festive occasion, where he could deliver appropriate sentiments, embellished with references to Holy Writ and the Talmud. At home, he was inclined to be quick-tempered, impatient, and severe in administering punishment for childhood infractions. We could generally find protection by fleeing to Momma, who rarely hesitated to come to our aid - she was big enough, and assertive as well, to do so - scolding him for his fits of temper and undue severity. She herself was a rather repressed person, not at ease at social affairs but open-handed when it came to practical matters. Thus, on one hand when I used to ask her for a dime to take in a performance of the melodramas (The Fatal Wedding, Bertha, The Sewing Machine Girl, From Rags to Riches, and others of that ilk) her usual answer was, in Yiddish, of course, Mach oise as du hossed dus shein gazan (make believe that you have already seen it). On the other hand, it was she who insisted on adding a bathroom in the first house they owned, by partitioning off one of the bedrooms, We occupied the third floor of a three-family house. This "improvement" (she actually used that word) made it no longer necessary to trudge down two flights of stairs to the back yard - a harrowing experience on cold winter nights. When, after the death of grandfather, Poppa inherited his tenement (16 flats), it was Momma who undertook the task of collecting the rent, often paid in driblets through the month, who listened unresponsively to complaints, and who came to terms about the rent when a new tenant moved in. When later, in more prosperous time, they bought and moved into a three-family house in a better neighborhood, one of her acts was to convert the three barns in the yard to garages, thus adding to the family income. She still made the round of the tenement, undaunted by the fact that the neighborhood had deteriorated, and that most of the tenants were impecunious people, from whom, to extract the rent, was often a hazardous venture.

Poppa saw me for the first time when I was a year and a half old. He had left for America to come to New Haven, whither his father and two brothers had preceded him, leaving Momma several months pregnant with me. When, after a year, he found himself in hat he considered sufficiently satisfactory circumstances (earning eight dollars a week) to take care of Momma and the two children, he sent for us. Our life was pretty precarious. He earned a little by giving Hebrew lessons, went he rounds with the emissary from the Holy Land collecting pennies and nickels from the charity boxes, which every respectable Jew had fastened on a kitchen wall, and earned a few pennies now and then by writing letters for those who wished to communicate with relatives still in Russia, but who lacked the skill in Yiddish script to do so. Poppa also wrote the address in large florid Russian character. He had somehow picked up a modest knowledge of the language as well as the art of writing it during his brief stint of compulsory service in the Russian Army. Momma added to these meager sources of income by taking in a boarder. How she ever manages to do so, with a growing family, and only three (later four) rooms at her disposal in a mystery she somehow solved.

One of these boarders was a handsome young man, who called himself Mr. Albert, and who initiated us into the wonders of the phonograph. He brought along with him one of those now-obsolete Victrolas, from whose horn there emanated wheezy, but to us, magical sound - music, comic dialogues, dramatic readings. His stay with us was a brief one; he was arrested for bigamy. He was, I learned later, one of a number of immigrants, who having left a wife in the Old Country, entered into new martial relations with some well-to-do spinster or widow, only fleece and abandon her, and then changing his name (as our Mr. Albert for example), to look for new pickings in other quarters. At this time, also, Momma added to the family coffer by her skill at sewing. Many a neighbor came to her to sew the wedding dress for a daughter. She had experience in sewing in the years before her marriage when she spent some time in the relatively large city of Vilna.

One of my earliest recollections was a brief experience in "Soup School," so called because children were given free breakfast of porridge, milk and crackers. When momma heard of this from a neighbor, always on the alert to lighten the family burden, she dispatched me thither in the company of the neighbor's child. The parents, for obvious reasons, were not encouraged to present themselves. I was happy to go there, though I thought it rather odd that the teachers, all women, seemed oddly dressed in long flowing black robes and veils and a white band across the forehead. Each morning we were marched to an adjoining building beautifully adorned with statues and stained glass windows. There was rich, solemn music from and instrument I had never seen before. There was chanting in a strange tongue, accompanied by movements of hands and knees. Finally, what I liked best of all, there was unison singing in English, the words of which conveyed little meaning to me. Momma was ignorant of all these goings on. Even the song I favored her with, "Onward, Christian Soldiers - With the Cross of Jesus" gave her no clue as the nature of the school. The word "cross" bore no relation to the Yiddish tsalim, and "Jesus" gave no hint that it was the same as Yezzus, or as he was more familiarly called Yoshke. When horrifying revelation came as to where she had been sending me, she lost no time in terminating any attendance there. I understood, more or less, why I could not go there any longer, but I could not help missing, at the age of four, the music, the beautiful windows and the breakfasts. One lasting result of my visit, however, was the name "Joseph" which was bestowed on me. When I first presented myself and I was asked my name, I responded with the one I was called at home, Yisroel, or Srolke in the diminutive form. The good Sisters, not knowing what to make of Srolke, hit upon Joseph as its English equivalent; this had the added advantage of being in good Catholic use as well. I should be grateful, I suppose, that they had come upon a good Jewish name. What if they had decided upon Christopher, or, God forbid, Christian?

After Poppa became "Shamus" life was easier. The salary itself was a meager on (two hundred a year, later five hundred), the there were a number of perquisites which added to the family income. There was the reading of the Holy Scroll on Yom Kippur, and the bringing of palm branches and citron to the ladies of the congregation to be used in the morning prayers during the Feast of Tabernacles. One of the women was sure to pay for the privilege of biting off the tip of citron - a sure guarantee for producing fertility. Furthermore, there were the additional emoluments for reciting prayers at circumcisions, Bar Mitzvahs, weddings and memorial services. It is no wonder there was always an uneasiness when Passover came around with the elections of officers, as well as the appointment of a Shamus to take place, lest some supplanter take over this main source of family income. Fortunately Poppa was very well liked by the members of the congregation, and so the dread event never took place.

There are so many other recollections that keep crowding in, most of which I incorporated in the material I wrote in college. I must not, however, omit another aspect of Momma's interests. She was an avid reader of the serialized novels that often ran for over a year in the Yiddish newspaper. She also delighted in attending performances of the itinerant Yiddish players, who occasionally came to New Haven. She had a remarkable memory, and could, and did, the morning after attending a performance of a play, reproduce almost word for word, and detail after detail. It was always a problem to get her to cut short her recollections so that I could dash off to make my eight o' clock class, a good mile away - I wsa then already going to college. Later, when I began earning money, I introduces her to a wider range of stage performances. There was Everywoman, listed as "A modern morality play," whose simple symbolism she had no difficulty in following and enjoying. There was The Bohemian Girl by Balfe, whose agreeable airs, gypsy cavortings (a la Il Trovatore), simple sentimental plot, and the interpolation of the Dance of the Hours from La Gioconda kept her enthralled. Most startling to me was her great enjoyment of Faust, with well-known soprano Maggie Teyte as Marguerite, whose afflictions spoke a common language, even though she sane in French, it brought forth sighs of compassion from Momma.